A Classic Spectacle

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UP IN THE AIR: Performers during the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics in Athens

The Olympic opening ceremonies are usually where good intentions and bad taste merge into something profoundly silly — and there was no reason to expect anything different from Athens 2004. With the weight of ancient mythology, Olympic history and western civilization piled on its nervous shoulders, surely the Greeks would give us papier-mache Argonauts fleeing from an angry Zeus robot. Or a children's chorus performing a Zorba medley at the Acropolis. Or at least Yanni. But last Friday, Athens introduced a surprising new element to the show: class, or at least its cousin, restraint. History was referenced by way of crisp video from Olympia, but no actor-Pheidippides stumbled breathlessly into the stadium to recreate ancient Marathon. There was a graceful recap of three eras of Greek sculpture that did not include a singing Trojan horse. A hovering cube allowed those familiar with Pythagoras to feel intellectually flattered without patronizing those who were merely amazed. A glassy lake in the middle of the stadium floor suggested the importance of the sea in Greek culture — and looked really, really cool.

Oh, there were a few aesthetic offenses — trying to sum up human history in 15 minutes using a parade of lasers and mimes was probably a mistake, and next time let's have a less anatomically correct centaur. But most of the four-hour ceremony was pitched perfectly between reverence and glee, as some 10,000 athletes from 202 countries were introduced to 72,000 spectators and a couple of billion other people. It was just the kind of perfectly secured, glitch-free triumph that the Greeks needed to boost their confidence for the 16 days ahead.

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Unfortunately, nothing is ever quite that easy in Athens. The evening before the ceremony, Greece's two most celebrated athletes — 200-m Olympic champion Konstantinos Kenteris and 100-m silver medalist Katerina Thanou — missed their mandatory drug tests and were suspended by the Hellenic Olympic Committee (H.O.C.) pending an International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) investigation. For Greeks, it was a shocking front-page horror story. I.O.C. officials say notices were posted on the athletes' doors in the Olympic Village alerting them to the 6:15 p.m. test, and that doctors waited more than an hour before declaring them no-shows. The H.O.C. confirms the athletes had checked into the Village, but says they left with no idea the tests had been scheduled. With scandal brewing, Kenteris and Thanou visited their coach in an Athens suburb, then got on a motorcycle to head back to the Olympic Village. They took a detour, though, to a hospital after skidding off the road; the accident left them with minor injuries and the H.O.C. with a major public relations headache. But it was enough to keep the two from testifying at a scheduled I.O.C. hearing to determine their status for the Games.

For Greece, a country of 11 million people and two Olympic celebrities — Kenteris and Thanou — the absurdity and timing of the incident was a cruel blow. It's been a tough battle for Greeks to shake their reputation as the reprobate relatives of the global family, and just when the world seemed convinced that the country was competent, Kenteris and Thanou ensnared themselves in what may be history's most elaborate lost-homework story. Kenteris and Thanou have missed tests before (once they were in another country when the people with cups came calling) and suspicion has followed the Greek track team since 2002, when it had nine of the world's 14 drug-test no-shows. The Swedes, curiously, have threatened a walkout if the duo is allowed to compete in their events. But it seemed likely that the I.O.C., which has shown no mercy in doping cases, would recommend the boot.

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